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Eels - Meet the Eels: Essential Eels 1996 - 2006, Vol. 1 Print E-mail
Friday, 01 February 2008
ImageThough it’s hard to imagine today, when every stray b-side, studio outtake and once-performed live track turns up on a peer-to-peer network, some canonized artists simply don’t have a very deep catalog. From blues guitarist Robert Johnson and the 42 tracks he left behind before his death at the age of 27 to the Sex Pistols and their one official studio album, not all legendary artists left legacies that are fit for boxed set treatment. And while it’s understandable that we’d search for gold in the lost moments of, say, Led Zeppelin or Neil Young, it’s puzzling when bands that are less highly regarded get the deluxe compilation treatment. And while it’s probably true that every halfway decent band deserves at least a “best of” set, it’s a far higher standard that should be met by artists who wish to have their previously unexplored sonic cobwebs and stray musings revealed for public consumption. They haven’t quite reached legend status, but after 10 years of existence Eels decided they’d do both.

One of the few bands aside from Radiohead to maintain an indie rock aesthetic despite having a major label footing the bill, Eels have often been too weird for Top 40 tastes and too straight for the pretentious indie kids. Whatever the case, main songwriter Mark Everett (a.k.a. E) has been responsible for a series of undeniably solid albums over the past decade, creating an emotionally charged and sonically diverse set of albums that charted his rise from surreally melancholy tunesmith to over-the-top orchestral auteur. Meet the Eels: Essential Eels is a document of the best of those albums.
Presented in chronological order, the 24 tracks offer a handy one-stop summary of the band’s career, opening with “Novocaine for the Soul,” the band’s biggest hit to date. That song, an unusual mix of non-sequiturs and rising and falling melodies that simultaneously suggest mental instability and sonic grandeur, eventually landed at #1 on the Modern Rock charts and officially established Eels as another oddball alternative to the post-grunge posers and violent gangsta rappers with their debut, 1996’s Beautiful Freak. Ten years later, those songs (four of which are chosen for this disc) still sound strange, finding an odd hybrid of hip-hop beats, soulful piano pop and bludgeoning guitar distortion. Taken in their individual pieces, the songs don’t seem strange at all. Sewn together as three-minute pop confections, they are a study in dissonance, marrying pretty melodies with ugly sentiments and hiding straightforward hooks under layers of sonic obfuscation. That strategy would remain Everett’s game plan for much of his career.

Electroshock Blues, the 1998 follow-up, is comparably shortchanged with only two selections. An album that documented an unthinkably dark period in Everett’s life, with various friends dying and his sister committing suicide, it contributes the lovely brokenhearted “3 Speed” and the harpsichord-drenched “Last Stop: This Town,” two tracks that capture a man retreating to childhood and drifting off into memories of better times. A previous remix of that album’s “Climbing to the Moon” by uber producer Jon Brion will be of particular interest to collectors, as it adds a wistful longing to that song’s original desperation with some plinky banjo and humming atmosphere.

Daisies of the Galaxy marked a change in the band’s approach, dropping most of the creaky samples that had occasionally turned up in their arrangements in favor of adding a more layered and sonically rich approach. Much of the crushing depression of the previous album was gone, replaced with the tinkling vibes and backing vocalists that filled out the glorious sway of “Flyswatter” and the swooning string section used to add emotional heft to his plaintive piano on “It’s a Motherfucker.” 2001’s Souljacker swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, adoping a harder edge with the overdriven guitars and howled vocals of “Souljacker Part 1” and the menacing “That’s Not Really Funny.” A misguided cover of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” is included as an extra but likely won’t inspire repeat listens, as his rap-metal rendition is arguably the nadir of Everett’s recording career.

Though Everett loomed so large over the writing and recording of Eels albums that it didn’t really matter who the backing bands were, their largely live-in-the-studio Shootenanny! produced a number of gritty garage rockers, represented here by the surprisingly joyful “Saturday Morning” and the breezy pop of “Love of the Loveless.” By 2005’s Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Everett was ready to issue his most eclectic set of songs, and five of them make this set. Ranging from the Beach Boys-esque sing-along of “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” to the hypnotically dazzling “Trouble with Dreams” and the sweetly burned out country-pop of “Railroad Man,” that album marked the high water mark for Eels recorded catalog, the culmination of years of struggle and pain that showed up in each of the album’s sonic creases and sighs.

Considering the hit or miss quality of the few unreleased tracks on The Essential Eels, the comparably generous 50 songs present on Eels Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities, and Unreleased would appear to be a far more daunting listen for anyone but the most hardcore fans. The lazily stripped down reading of “Novocaine for the Soul (Live from Hell)” seems to back up that assertion, as it saps all of the power and emotion from the original and replaces none of its meticulous swirl. The poorly mixed “Fucker” (a Beautiful Freak b-side) takes a pleasantly dainty guitar hook and buries it in an unfortunately muddled mix that ruins any aura the song could have, adding to the sense that many of these tracks are simply tossed off filler material. Despite the presence of a few decent guitar-pop ballads, it’s obvious that Everett is a good judge of his material and saved most of his best songs for his full-length releases.

That said, the best moments found among the two discs are generally the handful of tracks recorded live at the BBC, with a vulnerably threadbare solo piano version of “Manchester Girl” and the gospel-tinged “My Beloved Mad Monster Party” displaying a spontaneous energy that is sometimes found lacking in his meticulous studio albums. Also of interest will be previously unreleased live cover versions of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” soul standard “Dark End of the Street” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You.” Each of them daring in their own way, Everett uses his vocal limitations to his advantage to create renditions that sound even more weary and desperate than the originals. To his credit, whatever he covers sounds like he wrote it by the time he’s finished.

Even so, exploring these 50 tracks (12 previously unreleased) will likely be exhausting for anyone except the most ardent Eels fanatic, as the lack of continuity from track to track renders Useless Trinkets one long, disconnected series of modestly palatable songs. Still, these lesser-known moments do allow the listener an opportunity to hear Everett outside of the comfortable confines of his studio, and there’s little denying that Eels are an entirely different beast in a live setting. Still, the studio is where Eels stand apart, and since their albums succeed or fail largely because of the careful craftsmanship and insular feel that each track retains when viewed as a part of a larger whole, taking these songs in isolation renders them far less effective. That said, The Essential Eels does an admirable job in distilling the ethos of Everett’s craft into his best melodies and most striking lyrical couplets, and it would be difficult for a 24-track set to be more representative of their career. At the end of the day, these two sets prove Eels are actually pretty similar to most bands, just another act whose best tracks are deserving of canonization and whose lesser moments mostly belong left in the vault.

Despite being digitally remastered for the first time, some of the earlier tracks on The Essential Eels sound a bit dated to their mid-‘90s origin, with their thinly compressed guitar lines and loudly distorted vocals. In fact, you can pretty much chart the changes in production techniques with each subsequent Eels album, as they evolve into cleanly antiseptic textures and then into gorgeously organic tones. Far more inconsistent is Useless Trinkets, with some early tracks mixed poorly and few showing the signs of craftsmanship that define their studio tracks. Even so, the live tracks sound surprisingly good despite the lack of a controlled environment, and high-end equipment will bring out the extent of detail and nuance that Everett puts into his arrangements.

Extra Features
Making up for the lack of much unreleased material, The Essential Eels includes a DVD with 11 videos and one live performance that are available for the first time. From the breakthrough video for “Novocaine for the Soul,” a visually arresting collection of images of the band members hovering in space, tethered to the earth only by the chords connected to their instruments. “Rags to Riches,” a high concept mock of America’s Funniest Home Videos is funny the first time around but doesn’t have a ton of replay value; though the anthropomorphized carrot and surreal visuals of “Last Stop: This Town” are silly enough to make you take a second look to make sure you really saw what you think you did. In fact, the general zaniness of the videos almost suggests that the apparent seriousness of Everett’s songwriting might all be tongue-in-cheek, as video after video revels in a barrage of quirky, often willfully whimsical, images. Others are remarkably amateurish, from the handheld camcorder karaoke version of “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” and the stop action tape splices of “Trouble with Dreams.” Still, the fact that the collection has no menu means you have to scan through all of the videos if you happen to want to watch one at the end.

After you’re done digesting the hearty meal of 50 tracks spread across two CDs, Useless Trinkets adds a DVD of six songs recorded during Eels’ 2006 performance at Lollapolooza. Decked out in motley colored work overalls, the band tears through an energetic set that is marred by unnecessarily distorted vocals and a muddy mix. Still, the multi-camera footage captures the band up close and personal, firing on all cylinders as a crudely energetic four-piece. Again, the lack of a menu option is particularly irksome.

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